Cuba. It is something different to everyone…affordable, beautiful, impoverished, undiscovered, untouched…these are just some of the words that describe this complicated country. To Canadian travel agents, it is the destination we are asked about (and book) the most. It is also one of the most difficult to counsel clients on because standards differ so greatly on the island, due in part to government ownership in virtually every hotel and resort. With the influx of Americans into the country in the last year (and many more to come) however, it has become THE destination to talk about. As a Canadian who has been able to travel to Cuba many times in the last 20 years, I want to dispel some myths (and confirm others) about one of my favourite places in the world. The first (and biggest) myth is the food.
‘Good food’ and ‘Cuba’ are not usually synonymous. The thing I hear most from both agents and clients is, “No one goes to Cuba for the food.” Well, this is true but doesn’t have to be. Since the start of the U.S. embargo of supplies to Cuba almost 60 years ago, there have always been shortages and issues in the supply line but a lot of that was alleviated with Russian help, that is until the collapse of Communism in the early 1990’s led to those supply lines being truncated and leaving an already poor country in even more destitution. The Cuban government called this time the Special Period, a term that downplays the difficulties Cubans faced even as they began opening the borders to travelers looking for cheap sun holidays (and therefore monies in the government coffers). Things only got worse as supplies were diverted from Cubans to the hotels and resorts to support the burgeoning tourism industry. While improvements are evident in the last 20 years, shortages occur regularly even on the resorts. Last year when I stayed at the Grand Memories in Varadero (in the adults-only Sanctuary section, thank goodness), the resort proper ran out of orange juice, butter, mint and bacon…although these were readily available in the Sanctuary section.
So yes, there are issues with food and supplies (and these will only grow as Americans swarm in) but here are some positive points/tips:
Eat off-resort. I realize you’ve already paid for an all-inclusive package but Cubans are now allowed to run their own businesses (to a certain extent) and the local restaurants (called paladares) offer inexpensive and delicious meals, often much better than you’ll find at the resort. Last year for my 50th birthday, my son and I hired a driver to take us to Bay of Pigs to snorkel (bucket list item!) and we left the choice of restaurant to the driver (although we said we wanted something traditional). He brought us to a small ‘home restaurant’ (they cook in their kitchen and you eat in their yard) called La Finquita (no website obviously) where course after course was brought to the table including traditional Cuban rice and beans, yucca, avocado and beans, fish, lobster and crocodile (!) along with a cold pitcher of fresh guava juice. This was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve eaten and the cost for the entire meal? $30 CUC’s ($35.00 Canadian).
Most of it is organic. Due to the embargo, Cubans have had to rely on their own products or import from nearby Mexico, Venezuela, etc. As a result, much of the ingredients for dishes as well as the fruits, vegetables and best of all, seafood (!) is non-GMO, fresh and organic. Things like bread, bananas and yes, again the seafood are absolutely delicious! Whenever I’m at the airport on my way home, I always pick up some organic honey, the best I’ve tried.
There IS a difference in star ratings. I’ve stayed in 3 star resorts (several government-owned Club Amigo properties) as well as 5 stars (Spanish-owned Melia resort, Paradisus Rio de Oro) and while the food was edible at the 3 stars (confession: one of the best a la carte meals at a resort was at the Club Amigo in Guardalavaca, 6 giant shrimp, grilled in garlic butter and served with garlic mashed potatoes. Simple but outstanding), the food at the Paradisus was equal or better to anything I’ve had at 5 stars in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Barbados…you get the idea.
My point is there IS good food in Cuba! Understand where you are, what is available and be prepared to broaden your culinary horizons and you can have a terrific experience.